What 'Secrecy' reveals: 'Openness doesn't always guarantee that you'll have proper checks and balances,' says co-director Peter Galison, 'but secrecy guarantees you won't.' (Photo courtesy SFFS)

'Secrecy' Up For Debate

Robert Avila October 22, 2008

No one knows the precise number. Estimates run as high as one trillion. Whatever the exact amount, it’s both staggering and potentially dangerous. Is this more about dollars and deficits? Wars and bailouts? Not this time. It’s documents—a veritable mountain of them—generated by the federal government, classified as secret, and stashed out of sight of American citizens at a rate of tens of thousands per day.

Is this a big deal? Only if you think democracy requires transparency, or an open society openness. Most people do. That even goes for the government intelligence professionals arrayed on one side of Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s deliberative, atmospheric and engrossing documentary, Secrecy, receiving its theatrical premiere this week as part of a new San Francisco Film Society initiative, SFFS Focus: Investigative Documentary. [Editor’s note: more details below.]

In the film, insiders like the CIA’s James Bruce and Melissa Mahle strenuously argue for secrecy’s role in defending democratic ideals in a post-9/11 world. On the other side, others like the National Security Archive’s Thomas Blanton, or the attorneys for Guantanamo detainee Salim Hamdan—caught up in the legal gray zones of the "war on terror"—see deeply corrosive abuses taking place under the secrecy regime. Whether for or against, all acknowledge that regime to be a vast and imperfect bureaucratic system of classification, clandestine operation, and state secrets privilege; an edifice born largely of a Cold War, bipolar paradigm increasingly at odds with today’s more complex and interconnected multipolar world.

The film’s respectful airing of both sides in this debate was something the filmmakers (both of who teach at Harvard, where they also co-teach a course called Filming Science) were determined to realize early on. Sitting down with SF360 last week when they were en route to a First Amendment conference in Berkeley, they emphasized how the film’s narrative reflected their own process of grappling with the subject.

"I think both of us are driven crazy by a certain kind of political documentary that is so preaching to the choir that it’s not yet even thinking," said Galison, whose work in the history of science made him aware of the relationship between state power and secrecy long before he and longtime filmmaker Moss settled on it as a subject for a documentary. "We wanted to have people treated respectfully. The people who argue against you are not idiots. It’s not that we have no view—we do have a view, and over the course of the film you see where it goes. But we didn’t want to get there by assuming from the start that we were throwing softballs for ourselves to hit. That just seemed so insulting."

"I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people making a kind of op-ed piece as a movie," added Moss. "It can be too self-serving but it can also be interesting. I think for us, the question was about too much secrecy versus too little: Too much secrecy produces dangers to our democracy and too little produces physical dangers to the republic, and it’s a question of how you balance that. That is where I started at least. But over time, I realized it’s way too simplistic. If you stayed there it would be whoever shouted the loudest last wins that argument. It’s not very interesting. So listening to people, listening to what they really had to say, and trying to work with those ideas as they came up—the film is a kind of replication of our process, where we started and where we came to."

One thing they came to was U.S. v. Reynolds. While focusing squarely on the present day, Secrecy peeks revealingly behind the legal basis for the state secrets privilege in the 1952 Supreme Court case (which sought to force the government to release records assessing the fatal crash of a military aircraft). Indeed, Reynolds anchors much of the discussion in the film. More than ever, that precedent helps justify, on the basis of national security, an enormous and growing veil of secrecy—luminously evoked through surreal images of mountainous paper piles and patchy beams of light amid darkness. It’s this secrecy that contributes not only to Giza-sized heaps of sequestered paper, but also to a model of absolute presidential authority, the so-called "unitary executive," with increasing sway over the functioning of state power at home and abroad. Interviewing attorneys and family members associated with the case, the film neatly uses Reynolds to humanize the issue of government resistance to public scrutiny. Moreover, it discloses the surprising, distressing fact that the precedent was itself an instance of abuse: a hollow appeal to national security designed to cover-up the culpable negligence of the military.

But even as it debates government concealment versus the public’s right to know, the film ultimately develops a subtler theme, cannily deploying the insights and experiences of its subjects, along with deft visual metaphors, expressionistic animation and a beguiling score, to explore the nature and allure of secrecy itself. The film, grounded in the controversies of the moment, also transcends them, seeing secrecy as a motive force in the hallways and chambers of power, with individual and social costs attached to it.

"In the end, it’s really about a return to constitutionally mandated authority," said Moss. "There’s a deep insight in the film: Secrecy is the handmaiden of power, especially executive power, and if it gets too much of it, it will do bad things, inevitably. The Congress and the courts have to step up to do something about that."

, which screened this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, receives its theatrical release as part of a new San Francisco Film Society initiative, SFFS Focus: Investigative Documentary / Secrecy. In addition to a week-long run of the film at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, the program includes a post-screening Q&A, a Meet the Maker seminar and a panel discussion, designed together to explore the investigative documentary genre in general and Secrecy’s themes in particular. (For more information see SFFS.org).

The film that screened at the International earlier this year, however, is not exactly the film that will screen in *Secrecy*’s theatrical opening this week. Moss and Galison have recently added a crucial six minutes, incorporating the case of Khalid El Masri, the German citizen snatched off the streets, sent to Afghanistan, and allegedly tortured for months in one of the CIA’s infamous black sites, before finally being released as the wrong man. The suit brought by El Masri against the US government was thrown out of court in May 2006 on the basis of the state secrets privilege.

"We always wanted to have that story in," explained Moss, "but it sort of gained access to our consciousness a little late in the process, and we ran out of time." Not only had the film’s narrative already gelled, but they were in the final stages of post-production and about to head to Sundance, not to mention the fact that there was little money left over to shoot yet another segment. But when, while at Sundance, someone approached them about making a short, the El Masri story seemed the natural choice. They spent a hectic, cash-strapped summer making it, only to have the original deal fall apart in the end. At that point, they saw only one thing to do with the footage.

"We couldn’t stop ourselves from putting it into the movie," said Moss, who as a veteran filmmaker and film teacher knew he was violating a cardinal rule of the trade with such after-the-fact tinkering. "It’s almost always a bad idea to go back into a movie. When you worked in film it was very difficult, very expensive. And since you actually had to cut film and destroy frames it was in fact technically quite difficult and more brutal, more violent. In video it’s much less violent but it’s no less a bad idea, generally. Often you make things different but not better. But I think that we were right. The instinct to land Reynolds into the present, to have one more story about the way secrecy has been used in the [present] moment, and to have three stories rather than two circulating in the movie gave the film more narrative buoyancy and more complexity."

Indeed, the El Masri segment is not only salient, but so smoothly integrated into the larger narrative that this viewer assumed it had been there all along, unconsciously dropping it into my memory of the version seen earlier at the International (an admission that understandably pleased the filmmakers). Moreover, as another and chilling illustration of the human factor in the secrecy regime (powerfully underscored by animated black-and-white drawings that continually morph victims and perpetrators in a jagged cycle of causality), El Masri’s story drives home the moral dimension of the subject in the starkest of terms.

Despite the capitulation of the courts in El Masri and elsewhere, however, Moss and Galison still see hope for redressing the excesses of the executive in the system of checks and balances. "The Supreme Court has pushed back a couple of times against the government," noted Galison. "Making [the justices] look at the documents is also a way of holding them responsible. If not now then in the fullness of history, they have to think, ‘Oh, so I’m going to sign off on this torture?’ Now, they may sign off on it, but at least they know that it’s going to go down on the permanent record of the Supreme Court, that under their watch people were being water-boarded and they knew it. The state’s secrets privilege in a way lets the courts off the hook."

Galison acknowledged that in the U.S., as in many other countries, the courts have historically resisted weighing in on national security out of deference to the executive branch. But he sees this starting, slowly, to turn. "I think that there’s more willingness now, as the Congress and the courts began to smell in the air not only the end of the Bush administration but that the Republicans could lose power. Also, these entities are not unresponsive to the broad national mood. Terrorism is not so terrifying as it was seven or eight years ago. But secrecy does have this terrible property of immobilizing any response. We try not to be naïve. But at least it’s a way of forcing the issue."

"Openness doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll have proper checks and balances," reasoned Galison, "but secrecy guarantees you won’t."

screens at the Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema for one week, beginning Friday, Oct. 24, with co-director Moss in attendance at the 7 p.m. show. On Sat/ 25, Moss will participate in a Practice and Craft/Meet the Maker seminar at 11 a.m. at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center. Later that Saturday, Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle will moderate the panel, Need to Know: Uncovering Government Secrets. The panelists are Robb Moss, Secrecy co-director; Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Berkeley; and Ben Wizner, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. The panel is at 3:45 pm at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema (following the 2 pm screening). More at SFFS.